Operation Merlin: The Strange Saga of CIA Mission to Halt Iran's Nukes

Published: May 14, 2015 00:06am EDT
By Rick Rinker, Political Editor for Konsume Politics

Please Note: This article was updated May 14, 2015 @ 12:58am EDT


On Monday, Former CIA Case Officer Jeffrey Sterling was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison, convicted under the Espionage Act for leaking highly-classified information relating to Operation Merlin to New York Times reporter James Risen back in 2003.

The details of Operation Merlin, in which the United States conducted a covert mission to impede Iran’s nuclear ambitions, were so sensitive that the New York Times declined to publish an exclusive story under pressure from National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. Risen, still a New York Times reporter, would later publish a detailed account in his book “State of War” three years later.

The case against Sterling concluded a historic, decade-long investigation that tested the bounds of the First Amendment, and freedom of the press, all the way to the Supreme Court. The White House, Justice Department, and Federal Prosecutors all sought to put Jeffrey Sterling away for decades, part of the Obama administration’s pledge to fully prosecute all classified leaks; but the actions of decorated war general and former CIA director, David Petraeus, prevented that from happening.

It all began back in 1997 when a Russian nuclear engineer, only known publicly as “Merlin,” was recruited as a CIA asset. Merlin was to assist the intelligence agency, providing a credible identity as a disillusioned and desperate Russian nuclear engineer who was willing to give Iran the blueprints to a nuclear bomb.

The CIA assured Merlin that the nuclear blueprints were only a means to test Iran’s progress in nuclear proliferation, it was information they likely already had and that nothing he would pass along would actually assist them in their pursuit. In reality, the blueprints the CIA sought to pass on to the Iranians were fatally flawed, the hope being that the isolated nation would waste time building the component, significantly delaying their progress.

After much grooming, and a final meeting in San Francisco with the Russian asset, Operation Merlin would be set in motion. Merlin was given a sealed envelope to deliver to his Iranian contacts in Vienna, and was given specific instructions not to open the envelope under any circumstance. Years of intelligence gathering, asset cultivation and planning were finally ready to be put in motion. Operation Merlin was a go.

Once in Vienna, the envelope containing blueprints were successfully handed off to the Iran Mission at the IAEA in March of 2000. At the last moment however, Merlin had opened the envelope and inspected the contents. Recognizing the blueprints were flawed, Merlin had “gone rogue” and tipped the Iranians off to the fact that the blueprints were defective in an apparent attempt to hedge his bet. This resulted in Iran gaining key insights into the blueprints, outside of the defects. It also dealt significant blowback for the CIA and the operation, setting back years of covert work and ultimately aided Iran’s nuclear ambition.

Shortly after the botched operation, Jeffrey Sterling, Merlin’s African-American CIA case worker, lodged a complaint with the CIA Equal Employment Office in April of 2000 alleging discriminatory policies within the agency. After lodging his complaint, Sterling reported concerns he had about Operation Merlin to the Senate and House Intelligence oversight committees. He claims that the covert operation could have a negative impact on troops in Iraq. The CIA later responded by revoking Sterling’s clearance.

After many months and several attempts to settle the discrimination complaint, John Brennan, now CIA Director, personally met with Sterling to inform him that he was being terminated. According to Sterling, Brennan told him he had “tugged on Superman’s cape.”

In 2003, James Risen and the New York Times sought to publish a story on Operation Merlin. Risen was prevented from doing so after a meeting between National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and New York Times Executive Editor Howell Rained. A few years later, James Risen published his book “State of War,” which revealed a detailed account of the operation. It is claimed by investigators that Sterling was the source for much of this information, though Sterling denies this. Investigators from the F.B.I. interrogated Jeffrey Sterling and his wife, family and neighbors, it would take another five years before charges were filed against Sterling.

As the case against Sterling moved forward, the focus of the investigation, and the media coverage that followed, was largely focused on Journalist James Risen. This staged a showdown between the Free Press clause of the First amendment, a Pulitzer Prize winning Journalist and the National Security apparatus.

Ultimately, a federal appeals court ruled against Risen. Risen responded by appealing to the Supreme Court, who declined to hear his case, forcing him to name his source, something he vowed not to do. The DOJ would later back down amid public pressure and agreed not to jail Risen for protecting his source for details in Operation Merlin. Evidence provided against Sterling was largely circumstantial as there was no direct link or smoking gun presented at trial. Finally, Sterling was convicted of Espionage on January 26th 2015. Sterling’s conviction was hailed, by then Attorney General Eric Holder, as a “just and appropriate outcome.”

On May 11th 2015, Jeffrey Sterling was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison for leaking classified information to New York Times reporter, James Risen. Sterling was charged with violating the Espionage Act, one of the only Americans in history to be charged as such for leaking information to a journalist.

The Justice Department has a history of selectively prosecuting classified leaks. While federal prosecutors offered a plea deal to former CIA Director David Petraeus, who only received probation for his role in leaking classified information to his biographer, they sought to imprison Sterling for more than 20 years.

This is a troubling double standard for an administration who has vowed to prosecute leakers to the fullest extent. A perplexing end to a strange fifteen-year saga that spanned three administrations and tested the freedom of press boundaries of the constitution at the Supreme Court.




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